Financing Migration, Generating Remittances, and the Building of Livelihood Strategies: A Case Study of Indonesian Migrant Women as Domestic Workers in Singapore

This project focuses on Indonesian domestic workers embarking on migration as a livelihood strategy for poverty alleviation. It employs quantitative and qualitative methodologies to investigate the significance of ‘money’ at different points of the migration process: how families finance the migration of a wife, mother, or daughter; what and how migration brokers charge to facilitate the move; and what amounts of remittances are generated over the course of the labour contract. In addition, it examines the mediating role of communications technologies in reducing the transaction costs of migration and remittance-sending.

Project summary

Indonesian women represent a significant proportion of those employed as domestic workers in Singapore. It is often assumed that transnational migration acts as a pathway to ‘a better life’, but little research has been done to critically ascertain if, and how, such migration works to alleviate poverty and promote long-term livelihoods.  This study addresses those questions and aims to better understand the impacts of debt-migration which is migration enabled by borrowing from recruitment agents or other intermediaries. This research draws upon a quantitative survey of 201 Indonesian domestic workers based in Singapore in addition to 30 qualitative in-depth interviews (n=30) with to explore their migration trajectories.

The research found that most of the women migrated by taking advances from recruitment agents that they repaid through salary deductions for at least 8 months, resulting in restricted disposable income and personal freedom. Despite the precarious and unregulated nature of recruitment and employment processes, with employers and agents exercising a great deal of power over workers, 66 per cent of the migrants in the sample said that remittances had contributed to the education of their children.  Remittances were used to invest in land and housing (39 per cent), health (10 per cent), enterprise (9 per cent) and debt repayment (3 per cent), in addition to improved consumption (73 per cent).  All of these outcomes have the potential to reduce poverty and improve well-being in the longer term.

However the impacts of such migration on poverty would be significantly faster and greater if the industry could be better regulated and the study offers a number of policy recommendations to this end:

  • Enhance workers’ access to information about basic rights and entitlements
  • Ensure greater transparency and accountability in placement procedures
  • Establish proper channels for workers to seek redress in cases of employment disputes
  • Reform the current sponsorship system to ensure better access to job mobility

See Working paper No. 10:
Financing Migration, Generating Remittances and the Building of Livelihood Strategies: A Case Study of Indonesian Migrant Women as Domestic Workers in Singapore [PDF 1.36MB]

Related Activities

Here Today and Tomorrow: Transnational Domestic Workers and the Decent Work Agenda in Asia

On August 12, 2013, the Asia Research Institute (ARI) at the National University of Singapore organised “Here Today and Tomorrow: Transnational Domestic Workers and the Decent Work Agenda in Asia”. The event consisted of a public lecture, film screening and a visual exhibition. It attracted over 200 participants including students, academics, the migrant community, the media, as well as members of the general public.

The evening began with a photo exhibition and the screening of the short film by Reading Across Worlds, a project which highlights the stories of migrant women who work as domestic workers in Singapore. The film features Ristanti Ningrum, an Indonesian domestic worker who returns to Dolopo, Madiun, East Java, after 10 years in Singapore, to set up a children’s library in her village community. The inspiration for her library arose from her time with an employer in Singapore who had instilled a culture of reading in her young son.

The film screening was followed by a public lecture delivered by Dr. Maruja M.B. Asis, Director of Research and Publications at the Scalabrini Migration Center in Manila, Philippines. Dr Asis spoke on recent trends in migration concerning transnational domestic workers in Asia. Dr. Asis emphasised the importance of recognising domestic work as decent work within the framework of the International Labour Convention’s Domestic Workers Convention (Convention 189) which sets specific benchmarks concerning labour standards for domestic workers.

Dr. Noorashikin Abdul Rahman, of local NGO Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), provided an update on recent policy developments concerning migrant domestic workers in Singapore whilst affirming the importance of changing public attitudes and putting in place better legislation regarding their employment conditions.  Anthony Chen, award-winning director of Ilo Ilo, discussed the making of this debut film which chronicles the relationship between a Singaporean family and their Filipino domestic worker. The film was inspired by the director’s experience with a Filipino domestic worker whom the family referred to as Aunty Terry.   

The combination of the short film, lecture and commentaries sparked a discussion on the tensions embedded within the current regime of domestic work migration. Several members of the audience provided positive feedback about the diversity of voices and channels used in highlighting issues concerning migration and domestic work in Asia. Moving forward, the ARI team hopes to promote policy engagement on migration and development issues in the Southeast Asia region via similar multi-stakeholder platforms. 

The Return of Ristanti Ningrum


After spending ten years in Singapore as a domestic worker, Ristanti Ningrum returns home to Desa Bader, East Java, Indonesia, to set up a children's library for her village community.

This photo series chronicles her experiences of journey and return, highlighting intersections of family and relationships across borders, and how dreams are realised through small actions of people coming together.

Ristanti Ningrum: A Story

When Rista first left Indonesia for Singapore in 2002, she never thought that she would be pursuing this dream that would have been "too big" for her mind to imagine. "The village didn't encourage dreams," she said. People migrated overseas for work, mainly as low-wage contract workers, and that was it. Now, she wants her children’s library to inspire and nurture bigger dreams amongst the young ones in her village. A little step can go a long way.

It started with her time spent with Charlie, the son of her employer in Singapore, when he was aged two and a half. He loved reading the books that Rista shared with him, and developed a keen interest in exploring pictures of outer space. These books fascinated Charlie, and introduced him to the world beyond their living room. Recognising the impact that books had on children, Rista thought: What if the children in Desa Bader had this opportunity too?  

Back then, the Indonesian village had no library of its own. Rista wanted a place where children could feel at home with books around them. In her mind, books offered a valuable window through which children could discover the world, whilst anchoring them in core values to live by. But how should she begin? When she shared the idea with Sarah, her employer in Singapore, the family readily stepped in to offer support. They collected books from friends on her behalf, and even paid for the shipping fees.  

When the first batch of books arrived at her home in Indonesia, Rista's parents were perplexed. "Why send books instead of money?" they asked. It didn't take long for her family to be fully on board.

Her late father apportioned a space in their newly built house to set up the library, whilst her mother sought to maintain good health so that Rista could give full attention to her project without worrying about her. Joko, her husband, readily chipped in by assuming the dual role of interior designer and carpenter.

The library shelves had already been fixed when we arrived at Rista's in late June 2013. Amidst the scattered tools, it was apparent that things have been busy.

Rista gave us a tour of the library and indicated the specific areas in which she planned: a cosy reading corner decked with soft cushions; an easel for painting; and the designated wall where the children’s artwork would be showcased.

We brought with us boxes of books donated from friends in Singapore, and wasted no time sorting them out with the enthusiastic help of the village children. Over the next few days, all hands were on deck to prepare the library for its inaugural opening. The children readily took ownership of the library as they worked heartily to make it ready.        

On 3rd July 2013, the library ‘Ceria’, which means happy, was launched. It was a grand day for everyone in Desa Bader. The entire house came alive with joy and laughter as the children proudly displayed their artistic talents with beautiful, brightly coloured drawings in the art competition that Rista had organised. Following the ribbon-cutting ceremony, prizes were awarded to the winning teams as everyone gathered at the new library with much sprightly cheer.      

Rista hopes that her children’s library project will inspire others to embark on similar projects in their communities throughout Indonesia. “I want every village and school to have at least one library,” she shared. “If possible, I want my friends who are still in Singapore to initiate such projects.”

Setting up the children’s library would not have been possible without the steadfast support of her family, employers and friends. This was a dream that she would never have conceived of when she first embarked on her migration journey.

Ten years on, Rista now carries with her a rich tapestry of memories and friendships from her time spent in Singapore. She also intends to use the knowledge she gained from her weekly classes on Business Management and Accountancy to set up an online retail business for the future.

Policy Briefings